TOP GIRLS – “Scandal at the Japanese court” (Lady Nijo)

In 1982, British playwright Caryl Churchill’s award-winning drama Top Girls made its premiere in London.  The play begins with the main character, Marlene, hosting a [possibly imaginary] dinner party to celebrate her promotion at work.  Her guests are five famously strong women from history – some real (Isabella Bird, Pope Joan, Lady Nijo); some fictional (Gret, Griselda).

Alumnae Theatre Company member Diane Forrest, a writer and editor, has profiled the guests who appear in the play – here’s # 4 of the five, featuring the real-life historical character Lady Nijo, a Japanese courtesan-turned-wandering-Buddhist-nun, who is portrayed onstage by Tea Nguyen.

Illustration (possibly showing Lady Nijo) from a Japanese romance, published in 1904.

Alumnae Theatre Company previously staged the play in our 3rd floor Studio space back in 1996!  The new production of Top Girls is directed by Alysa Golden, and will run on the Mainstage from January 18 – February 2, 2019.  Tickets are available at


Lady Nijo, a 13th-century noblewoman, was handed over to the retired Emperor Go-Fukakusa by her father when she was 14, thus adding greatly to her own and her family’s prestige. (And that is his actual name, not an obscene political comment.) While she never overtly questioned the social system she was part of, Lady Nijo did have a rebellious streak.

She never quite made it as Go-Fukakusa’s top courtesan and resented that. She had affairs with other men – including a monk – and bore several children, which she was not allowed to keep. Her diary of her years at court, complete with a warts-and-all portrait of Go-Fukakusa, was suppressed for centuries because the Japanese couldn’t handle the idea that an emperor was – gasp! – a human being.

Eventually Lady Nijo was kicked out of court in disgrace and became a Buddhist nun. While this was standard behaviour for courtiers disappointed in their ambitions, Lady Nijo earned disapproval by travelling far and wide, on her own, in imitation of a famous monk-poet who had been her childhood hero.

But despite her spiritual aspirations, she was never able to escape the attitudes and painful memories she had acquired at court.

Lady Nijo’s diary, Towazugatari – “A Tale Nobody Asked For” – was rediscovered just before the Second World War. But is it the genuine outpourings of a tortured soul? Or a carefully constructed fictional autobiography, designed to demonstrate how difficult it is for even the most high-born woman to escape the oppressive role assigned to her? It may also have been a final – and ultimately successful — attempt to recapture her family’s prestige by writing for a future that would better understand her. No one’s sure, but it is definitely considered a treasure of Japanese literature.

Find out more about Lady Nijo at

For more info on the cast of Alumnae Theatre Company’s new production of Top Girls (Jan 18 – Feb 2, 2019) and special events, please visit




Filed under 2018/19 Season

2 responses to “TOP GIRLS – “Scandal at the Japanese court” (Lady Nijo)

  1. Kristine

    How exciting to see Alumnae Theatre mentioned here! I am on the board of the company.


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